In case you’ve been under a rock, or otherwise dead, there was an election and Donald Trump won it. Let me state my position up front: I don’t live in the USA. I’m generally on the right wing of politics. I’m not a fan of open borders. I backed brexit. But I don’t like Donald Trump. I dislike anyone who I wouldn’t trust in the same room with my female relatives. I don’t really like anyone much who’s on reality TV. I take a fairly dim view of American influence in the world, and so the slogan, “Make America great again,” sends shivers down my spine, not because of the damage he might cause while failing but because he might succeed.
The travails of the Republican party have been pretty well covered in this election. To briefly caricature, the Democrats chose the candidate the party machine told them to choose, the candidate who represented the Washington machine, big corporate interests and the influence of foreign money, the candidate with 1.3 billion dollars to spend on the campaign, and dressed her up in hope, love and feminism (“and the greatest of these is feminism,” one is tempted to add). The republicans party machine chose a candidate, too, and their membership told them where to stick it. Half (ie. some number that’s not ‘all’ and not ‘none’) of the party establishment refused to endorse their own party’s candidate. Normally that kind of party division ends in disaster, but not this time. This time, the party grass-roots have elected a president over the will of the party hierarchy.
All that’s been pretty well picked over in the last few weeks. I want to comment on the problems on the left. So many on the left are scratching their heads and wondering, “How did this happen? Couldn’t the electorate see what was happening? Why didn’t they listen?” To me, lots of the problems are summed up in this election-eve clip from Bill Maher. It’s not that long and worth watching in full.
Any Democrats still out there wondering why no-one listened? No? Good. Bill freely admits he lied to you about George Bush Jr. He lied to you about John McCain. He lied to you about Mitt Romney. He said all those guys were racist, sexist and homophobic and would be the end of the world as we know it, but that was just a trick to try to convince you. That was lying to you for your own good, to scare you into choosing the ‘right’ candidate when election time came.
But this time, you should trust him. This Republican candidate is different. This time, “shit just got real.” The man’s racist! He’s sexist! He’s homophobic! He’ll be the end of the world as we know it!
Do you think these people go on courses to help them suppress their self-awareness, or is the lack innate?
As much as there is undoubtedly to dislike about Trump, it’s hard, on a few minutes’ reflection, not to conclude that a good deal of the mud thrown at him is just made up. That’s a mistake. People are not quite as stupid as the commentariat assumes and they can, generally, spot mud being thrown in the hope that some will stick.
Let’s have a look at some specifics.
The accusation that Trump is sexist is doubtless true in some ways, but it’s quite a complicated, nuanced picture. The mistake here was to take someone who openly objectifies women and to assume (be it naively or cynically) that he therefore is against women’s rights. It’s not a very convincing assumption. Finding someone who claims Trump sexually assaulted them is easy; finding someone who claims he paid them less because they’re a woman turned out to be much harder. Finding someone who claims he treats women in the workplace well is easy; he’s got a daughter who runs a largish slice of his business for him. He might well cause a twenty-year backlog of sexual assault cases in the courts, but the idea that he would “put women’s rights back twenty years” is pretty hard to sustain. His opponents opted to demonise him, and it quickly became such a caricature that even the remnant of the accusation that is true tended to get written off. Feminists still don’t seem to have realised that rights-feminism and objectification of women go hand in hand; removing responsibility from men frees them to be the alpha male.
The accusation that Trump is in the Russian’s pockets is a puzzling one. It’s based on the idea that Russian state-sponsored hackers stole and leaked documents to make the Democrats look bad. There is a certain amount of evidence that is “consistent with” that picture, but it seems a long shot to call it certain. That and a couple of vaguely positive remarks that Trump has made about Putin are the sum of the evidence.
What’s puzzling is this: Why would Clinton make an issue of this? Her own skeletons here are positively bursting out of the closet. For her the concern is not Russia but the Middle East. The Clinton Foundation’s receipts of hundreds of millions of dollars from Middle-Eastern governments is well-documented, and the correlations between that money and things that happened at the State department are at least near enough to make a curious person raise their eyebrows. Why risk bringing that up? And why didn’t Trump’s campaign bring it up? My guess there, at least, is simple political ineptness. This was a campaign run on domestic concerns and in simple, single-colour slogans. Lining up funny money from overseas with complex deals done with foreign governments in a way that would resonate with the electorate was just too hard.
The accusation that Trump will start World War III, that the nuclear codes would not be safe in his hands, is frankly bizarre. The man is an isolationist protectionist. If someone attacks the United States then, have no doubt, the response will be swift and brutal. But an expeditionary warrior he is not. Far from provoking confrontation, he’s more likely to let allies be steamrollered by another power without concern. The dual concerns that he might start World War III and that he’s too friendly with the Russians just don’t line up.
One of the candidates in this election did more-or-less advocate provoking World War III and it wasn’t Trump. When I asked on Facebook if anyone could name a policy of the Clinton campaign, the only one that anyone could come up with was a no-fly zone over Aleppo. And guess who’s bombing Aleppo? That’s right: Clinton openly advocated policy that would necessitate the USA shooting down Russian jets. Again the lack of self-consciousness in the people making these accusations is, well, surprising.
And so we come to Maher’s most terrifying accusation: “Once fascists get power, they don’t give it up. You’ve got President Trump for life.” He’s saying that Trump will find a way either of rigging the next election or of avoiding it altogether.
I guess I can’t rule out that he’s right. My history of predicting politics is, after all, pretty bleak. I thought brexit was a losing cause. I had a tenner on Michael Gove for PM. I thought Tony Abbott would make a good PM. Only a few months ago, I predicted that Trump would win the primary but crash in the election. But haven’t we heard this before? Does anyone remember 2008 and the last days of the Bush Jr presidency? There was a serious segment of the internet that firmly believe that Bush Jr would declare martial law and suspend presidential elections. You can still find articles on the Huffington Post, published this year, by people who really believe that Bush was threatening to do so if some piece of legislation or other wasn’t passed (eg this). If you’re looking for the origins of popular fake news on the internet, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s especially perplexing when another accusation is that he doesn’t really want to be president and only won by mistake. The two don’t really go hand in hand.
And, again, it seems an odd objection from a left wing that is so vulnerable on this point. While it’s true that Obama has made relatively few executive orders during his presidency, he does seem to have a knack of making ones that get invalidated by the courts, and of those that remain there are some that make big policy in important areas and it’s hard to see how some of them shouldn’t be invalidated. An executive order can’t contradict the constitution or statute law; how then can “deferring” the deportation of illegal immigrants, which is required by statute law, be a valid presidential order? I guess the argument is that he’s not cancelling their deportation, just scheduling a date for it that’s not in the near future. My argument here is not about the attractiveness of one immigration policy over another, it’s about the rule of law and the ends not justifying the means; it’s hard not to call this kind of sophistry what it is. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s tried to rule without congress.
It’s not only Obama’s legacy. The thousands of people out on the streets this week shouting, “Not my president,” “Mr Hate leave my state,” and “Dump the Trump,” don’t seem to realise the irony, the nearly-five-million people who have signed a petition on change.org urging electors to vote against their mandate and elect Clinton don’t seem to realise the irony, that for fear of a president who might refuse to give up power they are advocating overturning the result of a valid election against the will of the electorate (see this fine article for a good analysis of why even the attempt is a rotten idea – in summary, changing the rules after the election so your candidate wins is a slippery slope the other side will eventually burn you with, and it’s especially pointless when the chances of it coming off are as slim as they are this year).
“Trust me,” says Maher, “This one’s different.” “Trust me.” People didn’t trust him. Why? Because he’s lied to them repeatedly, and it seems fairly certain he’s lying again. The problems of the right are an unhealthy streak of xenophobia and racism; the problems of the left are that they have burned their own trustworthiness on the altar of electoral success. If the left wants to succeed, they need to rebuild some of that trust. It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of honesty, and there’s many signs of it so far.